The Michelin-starred Chefs Giving Vegetables a Makeover

SLIDESHOW: “Using locally sourced produce from the land is a new and growing trend in Paris, but it is one I have been thinking about for many years,” says Ducasse.

Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard have banished meat from their tasting menus and are trying to raise vegetables’ profile, for the benefit of our bodies and planet.

Alain Ducasse and I are sitting in his restaurant at the Plaza Athénée in Paris having a very French sort of conversation. Steak, he informs me, with a knowing Gallic look, is terribly sexy. Too sexy, in fact, because it can taste overpowering and leaves the chef without much freedom to add his own touch. Whereas vegetables are in dire need of a sensual touch — and Ducasse is just the man to give it to them.

Although he is not alone in his quest to sex up the tomato. For the benefit of our palates and the health of our bodies and planet, Paris’s most-feted chefs have been taking the provocative step of swapping meat for mushrooms and mangetout.

This striking shift towards all things green was started by Ducasse and his great rival Alain Passard. Both men recently won back third Michelin stars for their respective Parisian restaurants, Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée and Passard at L’Arpège, by banishing meat from their tasting menus. And creating 10 world-class courses out of little more than truffles, radishes, beetroots and asparagus not only redefined what haute gastronomy is today, it was also the ultimate test of their talents.

“It was the greatest challenge of my career,” says Ducasse. “Animal fat is filled with flavour so even an average chef can make a good piece of meat taste delicious. But vegetables, they need so much love and attention if they are going to be the star of your plate. You see, vegetables do not start sexy; they require work to become that way. It is a long process but the results are worth it.”

And diners at their restaurants, which are among the most prestigious in the world, are now feasting on leaves, roots and stems — and they are happy to pay hundreds of euros and join three-month-long waiting lists for the pleasure of it. Because it turns out that broccoli, kale and apples do taste a lot better when they’ve come out of a Michelin-starred kitchen in Paris than a cold-press juicer.

“Using locally sourced produce from the land is a new and growing trend in Paris, but it is one I have been thinking about for many years,” says Ducasse. “In fact, it was something I was first inspired to do when I was working in Doha with Middle Eastern chefs who seduce their diners with vegetarian stews rather than with animal fat or flour.”

Seductive is a good word for Ducasse’s Plaza Athénée restaurant, which is an astoundingly beautiful dining room of crystals and mirrored banquettes. But there is also something wonderfully modern about a tasting menu that leaves you feeling energised and happily sated rather than uncomfortably full. “Paris, like everywhere, is changing,” says Ducasse. “There is a new generation of people who want to know where their food comes from and want to protect their planet. And, of course, they want to feel great after an expensive meal rather than needing to lie down.”

And while they may be rivals on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Passard and Ducasse have a strikingly similar commitment to the importance celebrating the natural. “The ordinary can be luxurious. That’s the most important lesson any chef can learn,” says Passard, on the phone to me a few days later. “I have always focused on my immediate natural environment because I believe we should take our cues from nature rather than forcing nature to adapt to our tastes.”

His restaurant, L’Arpege, is tucked away on a small unassuming street behind the Rodin Museum and it is packed every night with diners exclaiming over perfectly sautéed turnips and delicate carrot and pea vol-au-vents.

“I grew up in Brittany and I remember how delicious a tomato could be,” he says. “And in my restaurant I want to create a sensuality from that simplicity. I believe all the most exciting new food trends are already growing in our gardens.”

However, this intense focus on a product that has only ever played a supporting role has put an extraordinary amount of pressure onto the quality of the vegetables pouring into their kitchens. Although happily for these two famously obsessive men, they can now control the entire process from soil to bone-china plate.

Ducasse grows his produce on a farm that must be almost as beautiful as the restaurant it is destined to be served in. Set on the grounds of the Chateau de Versailles, it comprises three hectares of some of the most historic farmland in Europe. “The soil at Versailles is extraordinary,” he says. “But this is no surprise as the royal family would want to be based somewhere very fertile.”

Passard, meanwhile, spends almost as much time at his famously old-fashioned farm on the outskirts of Paris as he does in his kitchen, passing his mornings checking on his horse-drawn ploughs and choosing which vegetables to send into Paris for the dinner service.

And, interestingly, where the Alains led, the rest of the city has followed, with everyone from Joel Robuchon to Christophe Moret at the Shangri-La and Thierry Marx at the Mandarin halving their butcher’s inventory so that they could place a heavy emphasis on all things green. And, as a result, smaller brasseries and bistros also started rewriting their menus, changing Parisian perceptions of what it means to have a vegetable-based diet.

“You see, in the past it was only our American visitors who would eat just vegetables,” says Ducasse. “But everything has changed now. Food from the garden has become sensual and something to be treasured.”

And while it might seem somewhat unfair that the French get to have the sexiest vegetables, as well as everything else, the fact we can now call a gastronomic trip to Paris a healthy option must be a cause for celebration.

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SLIDESHOW: “Using locally sourced produce from the land is a new and growing trend in Paris, but it is one I have been thinking about for many years,” says Ducasse.